Growing up in a dugout or a locker room, you hear things you wish you hadn’t. One guy bedded a girl he met at the bar last night, another shares a little too much about a penis he justifies as average sized, and another makes fun of a teammate for going through a slump with the ladies, for which he’s called, “You f****t.”
Just as the military came under scrutiny with “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” barring openly gay individuals from serving their country from 1993 to 2011, the sports world has had an informal policy of its own that has been unofficially policed by ignorant homophobic athletes for years. If you’ve been wondering why it took an athlete so long to finally come out of the closet, consider the homophobic nature of the sports world, which to this day is still exclusive to macho heteronormativity.
In May 2011, Bulls center Joakim Noah shouted a gay slur at a fan. Larry Johnson, Jr., a running back for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2009, called a fan on Twitter a “f**.” In 2007, New York Knicks guard Tim Hardaway made headlines for saying, “I hate gay people.” Kobe Bryant was fined $100,000 in 2011 for calling referee Bennie Adams a “f****t” after a technical foul call. The list goes on, and these are just players who have been caught in the act.
Until last week, no active player in major sports had ever felt comfortable coming out as a homosexual to the media. John Amaechi, a retired NBA player came out in 2007, four years after retiring from the NBA. Washington Wizards center Jason Collins announced that he was gay in a story that was featured on the front cover of Sports Illustrated on April 29; he did so with balls and bravery. Coming immediately to Collins’ side was Bryant, who Tweeted, “Proud of @jasoncollins34. Don’t suffocate who u r because of the ignorance of others.” Ironic, but it was a step towards promoting acceptance. Collins also received a call from President Barack Obama, who praised him for his courage.
As gay marriage has reached the Supreme Court and has divided conservatives and liberals, Collins’ announcement comes at an opportune time, but it’s unfortunate that it took so long. The Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law estimated in 2011 that approximately nine million Americans identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. That statistic is subjective, though. It’s much easier to track height or ethnicity, but closeted homosexuals make the statistic an educated guess. If the Williams Institute is somewhere in the correct ballpark, we’re talking somewhere between 1 in 10 and 1 in 20 Americans identifying as LGBT.
Now consider the sports world. In Major League Baseball, 750 players are in the league at all times, excluding roster expansions in September. In the National Football League, 1,696 players are on an active roster at any given time. In the National Basketball Association, approximately 400 players are active at any given time. To think that out of nearly 3,000 players currently active in MLB, the NBA and the NFL combined, it’s hard to believe that Jason Collins is the only one who is a homosexual. In fact, on April 5, Brandon Ayanbadejo of the Baltimore Ravens — a vocal activist for gay rights, said that four NFL players were considering coming out soon.
What made Collins’ announcement so powerful? First, let’s consider his stature. At nearly seven feet tall, Collins has battled big men like Tim Duncan and Shaquille O’Neal his entire career. While he isn’t an all-star, Collins was frequently sent into games to commit intentional fouls and alter shots. He would check in to be aggressive. Collins goes against homosexual stereotypes that lead fathers to panic because their son “throws like a sissy” or rejoice that his son is the star quarterback dating a cheerleader. Collins was the star basketball player, and he is gay, but he doesn’t “throw like a sissy” or “dunk like a sissy,” he plays the game like a macho man, a macho man who happens to love men. What’s wrong with that?
Imagine if Kobe Bryant was gay. He grew up around two things — a basketball and men. What if he paid his wife Vanessa millions of dollars to keep his cover? You know why nobody would believe that? Bryant is tough, that’s why. No one would believe that, because when Bryant drives to the basket, he absorbs contact and lays the ball off the glass and in for two points and the foul. Kobe Bryant is a man, he’s THE man. But what does that have to do with his sexuality?
Collins has opened up Pandora’s box. Imagine how many players have used a gay slur in conversation with Collins throughout the years. Hopefully those athletes are more careful with their words now, because you never know who could come out next. And hopefully they put themselves in Collins’ shoes, respect his choice and play basketball against him man-to-man, not treating him differently in the clubhouse, fouling him harder or refusing to sit next to him on team flights.
Collins has now put himself into the category of Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron as athletes who have broken down barriers in the sports world. According to Larry Shwartz of ESPN.com, Robinson had catchers spit on his shoes, pitchers would throw at his legs and head, and base runners would slide in spiked cleats first. Hank Aaron received death threats when he closed in on Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record.
Aaron once received a letter that read: “Dear N***** Henry, You are (not) going to break this record established by the great Babe Ruth if I can help it […] My gun is watching your every black move.”
While racism in America still remains a serious topic, the sports world at least has become much more accepting. Nearly 1 in 4 MLB baseball players is from Latin America, but the percentage of African American MLB players hovers around 8 percent — the lowest it’s been since the integration era. It’s far from perfect, but it’s far from just a white man’s game now. Someday, maybe we’ll say the same about the straight man’s game.
Baseball is an example of transformation amid discrimination, one that Collins should model his style after. As Robinson’s manager Branch Rickey once said, and as seen in the film “42,” “I want the [black] ballplayer who has the guts not to fight back.”
Collins now carries the weight of all gay athletes pro or amateur, but he doesn’t have to. Just as Hank Aaron, Bob Gibson and Barry Bonds followed Jackie Robinson’s lead, more gay athletes need to find the courage to join Collins on his island. Collins and other future de-closeted athletes have the opportunity to show kids that just because your father calls you weak doesn’t make you gay, and just because you’re a macho star athlete doesn’t mean you have to hide your true sexuality.
Collins has the potential to usher in a generation of openness in athletics. Gay athletes of all ages will be waiting to see how Collins represents their secret, and how he could create a better and more open world for athletes in which players aren’t judged by who they do in their bedrooms, but by how high they jump, how fast they run, and how effective they are defensively; but he can’t do it alone.